My Friend Willie

Writer Larry L. King talks about his new book, In Search of Willie Morris.

April 2006By Comments

texasmonthly.com: It wasn’t long after Evan Smith took over as editor of Texas Monthly in July 2000 that you got the Willie assignment. As I recall, one of Evan’s first moves was to try and get some of the old guard back into the magazine, and yours was one of the bylines he was hottest about running. What do you remember about that evolution of the Willie piece?

Larry L. King: That Evan Smith asked me to write 5,000 words. I couldn’t find a place to stop. I sent Evan an incredible 19,000-plus words. My manuscript must have tilted his desk when it landed on it. As you know, Evan published 6,813 words, and it won the Texas Institute of Letters’ annual O. Henry Award.

David Halberstam, who’d read the long version, said, “You’re on the way to a good book here. You owe it to Willie’s memory to finish it.” So I did, but it was the hardest book to write that I ever took on. It’s tough to write honestly of a friend, though I think I did. I worked on In Search of Willie Morris a full four years—a record for me.

texasmonthly.com: You were a big part of the first decade of Texas Monthly. What was writing for Texas Monthly like back then? You were one of the biggest magazine writers in the country at the time. What did Texas Monthly mean for you?

LLK: I was delighted when Texas Monthly was founded. When I was a young hope-to-be writer in Texas, there was no state-wide general magazine—very few magazines, indeed, and no publishing houses besides university presses. So it was a step up for Texas publishing.

Bill Broyles, the founding editor, was a damn good one. I did fuss that, originally, “the other Texas”—poor folks, minorities, the common man, so to speak—was not covered.

texasmonthly.com: I’ve always thought that the most interesting character in most of your work was you. Sometimes that was because the stories were in fact about things you’d done, places you’d been, people you’d known. But even when the pieces were ostensibly profiles of people that you had no relationship with outside of that particular assignment, your voice was so strong that you were in the story. That’s not as true of the Willie book. There are, of course, plenty of recollections of your own, of the heady days at Harper’s, the brief rivalry for Barbara Howar’s affection, plus your assessments of key players in Willie’s life, like his mother; his first wife, Celia; his savior JoAnne Prichard. And there are any number of descriptions that could have been written by nobody else, for example, “Capote’s once snazzy 1968 red Mustang convertible was so chronically dented it looked as if he parked it only in hailstorms.” Yet you seem to have made a real effort to keep this Willie’s story. Was that a conscious decision on your part? A function of having been locked out of Willie’s life during those long stretches he spent sunk in deep depression?

LLK: Well, yes. It was to be Willie’s story from the outset, not mine, though because of our Harper’s years together, I obviously was in play. But I had to depend on many others to give me eye-witness reports of events when Willie Morris went into exile on Long Island for a decade after he quit Harper’s under pressure, and for the last twenty years of his life once he’d returned to his native Mississippi.

I saw Willie in Mississippi and Memphis several times, and in Washington a few times, but I wasn’t aware of his day-to-day life or many of his problems. I also had to talk to people who knew him as a kid in Yazoo City and to a few who knew him in his Rhodes Scholar years. All that required ditch-digging reporting rather than poetry.

texasmonthly.com: That said, even though you’re not always an active character in the book, your relationship with Willie is. The reader feels your appreciation for all he did for you, your admiration of his talent, and your frustration at the years he opted not to do much with that talent. And early in the book you say that you’re presenting him warts and all because that’s the kind of writer he helped you learn to be. So the relationship is always there in the book.

It seems there are two elements to that relationship, one of lifelong friends, and one of writer and editor. Does either define what you meant to each other more than the other? And can you discuss more generally what the relationship is between an editor and a writer? How important is the right editor to a writer? What does that relationship look like when it works? And when it doesn’t?

LLK: Oscar Wilde said, “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” And yes, I felt a little like Judas in reporting Willie’s alcoholism and his conduct resulting from it. It colored his life in many dark hues. But I kept reminding myself what Willie told me and others when we wrote for him: “Get it all, and get it right.” And if a writer isn’t going to do that, why is he or she writing?

Willie was a great editor. Halberstam said Willie at half-speed was better than 98 percent of editors, or some such. Willie was great at matching the writer with a subject he’d write well about. There wasn’t any magic to it, it was just that Willie engaged writers in many topics, conversationally, and when the writer’s eyes began to glow, and his hands swooped and darted like eagles circling their prey, Willie knew the writer cared about whatever he was talking about. Then he would say, “You must write that for me!” and that worked out well almost always.

I never had another editor engage in as many subjects as Willie did, so they knew less about me and what I might bring to the page on a given subject than Willie knew.

If a writer and his editor don’t have a good relationship, it’s likely very little that’s good will result.

texasmonthly.com: There’s a great paragraph early in the book where you describe Willie thusly: “A sensitive and intelligent youngster growing up in a world where he was told to live by one set of rules but observed lives being lived by quite another—including in his own home—would have had to find a way to live with so many contradictions. Young Willie Morris chose fantasy and he used that escape hatch for the rest of his life.”

Now, as you make plain in the book, Willie hated the very idea of psychoanalysis. And I don’t recall you ever wasting any words in praise of head-shrinkers. Yet that paragraph above is one fine piece of head-shrinking. How much a part of your craft is that ability to read people? How did you come by that skill? Where do you get the confidence to trust those assessments and present them to the world? And was it easy to put someone as important to you as Willie on the couch like that? Any idea what Willie would have thought of the assessment?

LLK: I don’t claim to be an accomplished reader of people. And certainly I’ve never thought of myself as having the talents of a “shrink.” Actually, I haven’t had more experience with “shrinks” than Willie had. Whatever I’ve learned was learned in the process of having lived 77 years, having known varied cultures and many people and, as a writer, having become, long ago, a trained observer.

I’m sure Willie Morris would not like some of my “readings” of him. Willie wanted everybody to love him, or at least like him, so he no doubt would be put off by my comments about his using fantasy to escape the real world, his likely being clinically depressed from an early age, and so on. I provided the evidence for my contentions in the book. Readers may make their own judgments as to their accuracy.

texasmonthly.com: Why was Willie so nuts about dogs?

LLK: I never asked Willie why he so loved dogs. I just accepted that he did. Thinking on it, and knowing his home life as a kid was not entirely loving, it may be that Willie needed dogs because dogs love their masters and show it many ways. And if someone loves you, it’s pretty easy to love them back.

texasmonthly.com: You describe David Halberstam as perhaps the most fearless man you ever met. Can you go further into that?

LLK: Halberstam is very intelligent, he’s very confident of his opinions, he takes no guff from anybody—and he will confront any who offend him. He never hesitates to use logic in rebuttal, though that is not to say he isn’t sometimes emotional.

That all sounds like Halberstam’s a difficult man, I guess. But he’s not: He’s a feeling man, a caring man. He’s a great friend. But God forgive you if you make him an enemy—because Halberstam won’t forgive you!

texasmonthly.com: You’ve made jokes about being a “lion in winter.” And in his 2004 book Texas Literary Outlaws, Southwestern Writers Collection assistant writer Steven L. Davis drew a clear distinction between your earlier, “cutting-edge Harper’s journalism” and the essays you placed in magazines like Parade and TV Guide in the eighties and nineties. I believe he even used the term “diminished stature.”

However, your original Willie story in Texas Monthly won the Texas Institute of Letters’ O. Henry Award in 2001. And there’s absolutely nothing “winterized” about the Willie book. I’ve read just about everything of yours I’ve ever gotten my hands on, and I’d put this up there with any of it. There are magazine stories of yours that mean more to me—the pieces on your dad and Louis Armstrong come to mind first—but the Willie book is simply as good as anything you’ve ever done. How does it feel, after forty years in letters, to have published what may be the best work of your career?

LLK: There’s no doubt my Harper’s work for Willie was “cutting edge” stuff compared to most other stuff I wrote for other magazines. That reflects, again, Willie’s putting the right man with the right story. So to that extent, Steve Davis was right. And, also, TV Guide—which he mentioned—gives very little space to its writers, and so there’s not much opportunity to develop much. I think some of my Parade articles were good enough not to reflect “diminished stature.” But I suppose that’s for others to judge.

Most who write about my work give short shrift to my stage plays. Often they don’t even mention them. And I think of the seven plays I’ve written, three are pretty damned good: The Night Hank Williams Died, The Golden Shadows Old West Museum, and The Dead Presidents’ Club.

I don’t know if In Search of Willie Morris is the best work of my career, as you suggest. I’m still very tired from having written it, from going through the editing process and now the promotional process. I’m tired, really, of talking about the book. It’s ridden my life long enough! But, of course, I appreciate the tone of most critics and reviewers, and the nice things friends and/or other writers have said of it. I’ll have to evaluate it against my other work further down the line.

texasmonthly.com: You’ve said your next book will be Safe at Home, a look at life in the states while World War II was being fought overseas. What are your hopes for that project? Any timeline? There’s a great series of pages in the Willie book describing the social and cultural moment that produced him. Is that the kind of thing to expect of Safe at Home?

LLK: I have great hopes for Safe at Home: Life in World War II America. I was less than a month away from being thirteen when Pearl Harbor was sneak-attacked, and I was six months away from being eighteen when it ended. World War II vets are dying off rapidly. So I think this eye-witness account of the American home front is important. Comparatively, not many are left who actually recall it.

And I compare our home front, not so incidentally, with the “home fronts” of England, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and, to some extent, what was happening in occupied countries such as France and the low countries.

I also open a few years before Pearl Harbor, to set up the pre-war world, and I continue a year or so past the end of the war because many things done at the end of the war—or not done—shaped the world we live in in this moment. So, yes, the social and cultural moments you speak of definitely will be part of that book.

I had written about 150 pages when I put the manuscript aside to write the Willie Morris book. I hope I can finish it two years after this promo stuff is done that I’m now involved in, but it probably will take three years. By then I will be—for real—“a lion in winter”!

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